Learned Optimism: 3 Habits to Happiness

Optimism Quote - The Returned Missionary

Have you ever wondered how the prophets get any sleep at all?  Or are able to function day to day when they are burdened—almost—with the weight of the world on their shoulders? How they can know that they are God’s representative on Earth and yet have that Earth filled with genocide, mass starvation, entire populations barred from freedom, and millions of families split apart by everything from drugs to war to infidelity?  I do. I think it is a miracle they get out of bed at all! Yet they do, and with a smile on their face and inspiring confidence in their wake. The reason, at least partly, is that they have learned to be optimistic. 1

President Ezra Taft Benson emphasized: “Daily, constantly, we choose by our desires, our thoughts, and our actions whether we want to be blessed or cursed, happy or miserable.” 2

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This is as true for a prophet, as it is for a missionary, as it is for a returned missionary. This is substantiated by decades of research in the psychological community as one researcher summarized:

Theory and research over the last 50 years show that emotions or feelings are based not on the event or the world we perceive but rather on how we interpret events and the world… Your feelings are created by your thoughts and not … actual events. All experiences must be processed through your brain and given a conscious meaning before you experience any emotional response.3

The thought then arises, “Well, then, how exactly do I practice interpreting the world in a more optimistic way?” Doctor of Psychology Dean E. Barley, the Director of BYU’s Comprehensive Clinic synthesizes some principles from his experience helping others cultivate happiness and optimism in his 2012 Education Week class entitled, “Achieving Happiness.” The following are some of his key points as they apply to returned missionaries. In essence, we need to learn to recognize when we are pessimistic, consciously choose optimism, and always keep an eternal perspective.

Recognize Pessimism

When we react to a situation, the natural tendency can be to interpret it as permanent (“I will never recover from this failure”), pervasive (“this will undermine everything I’m trying to do”), and/or personal (“this is completely my fault”). Instead, we need to ask ourselves if we are seeing things “as they really are” 4. In other words, we need to learn to react optimistically. Using our God-given agency, we can choose to explain those same set of circumstances in much less destructive ways, and the way we choose to interpret them can make a world of difference in how the situation affects us. 5 Dr. Barley suggests we combat the 3 P’s of pessimism and replace them with the 3 O’s of learned optimism.

Learn Optimism

  1. Realize that bad events are not everlasting but Occasional. Take, for example, a minor car collision. You and the other driver are fine, but one might be tempted to react emotionally and lament the damage to the car and start thinking of how irreparable the situation is. True enough, but isn’t it also true that, in one’s lifetime, we should expect to be in a few fender-benders? Take charge of your thoughts and say “I’m going to ‘check this off’ as one of the accidents that is due me.” Also realize that you can fix or replace the car, and even if the bill is substantial it will not determine the rest of your life. Even in the worst-case scenario, it will eventually be paid off while you live a normal life.
  2. The majority of misfortunes are Out of bounds from the rest of your life.  A setback in one area will not adversely affect all others. I recently returned from a visit to Utah where I had a goal: beyond my holiday family activities, I was going to meet a girl at the single’s ward and go on a simple date. This was Utah, I had more than a week’s time, and it even overlapped such that I would have two weekends. A sure thing for a “catch” like me, right? Well, it didn’t happen, and the closest I came ended with the girl completely ignoring my call. I was sorely tempted to think that “no one likes me” and that I was “a loser”.  I had freshly-minted evidence, didn’t I? Well, putting aside the obvious (and merit-filled) approach of explaining why she might have forgotten to call back, let’s just say it was a rejection (we all get rejected sometimes!).  Does it affect the relationships I have at home—do they suddenly find me unlovable? Does it affect my relationships with my friends back in my home ward? Does it affect my spirituality? My ability to stay employed? No! My being rejected by this specific girl affects none of those things! This was a relatively isolated event in a specific circumstance. It does not affect my innate worth, nor the many other areas of my life from which I derive meaning and happiness. The next time you are tempted to turn inward 6 and make a catastrophe out of (in the eternal sense) a very minor setback, declare a boundary and do not let the event pass that line. And realize there is so much more to you and your life than defining everything important within those narrow boundaries.
  3. Admit that there are Other Factors outside your control. As much as we want to “own up” to our mistakes, weaknesses, and failures, there is an epidemic of taking this to the extreme. So many of us are guilty of beating ourselves up saying that “if only I was more prepared,” “if only I had thought to do this or that,” etc. It is downright paralyzing to think of all the ways that something that has already happened could have been prevented if you had acted differently. You are saddled with whatever happened, and there is no going back. Why not give up your need to be the center of the universe and realize that the reason for not being able to (for example) find a job is mostly due to factors outside your control? You can’t control the economy, you can’t predict or foresee how a potential boss will tabulate which areas need restructuring, nor the fact that his nephew just moved back to town and happens to have the same skill set that you do. In any situation, there were factors outside you that contributed to it. Give those your realistic acknowledgment and feel the weight and pressure lift noticeably.

Keep an Eternal Perspective

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In all things, we should try to step back and realize who we are and our relationship to God. As we fully embrace the simple truths of the Gospel and yield our hearts to them, the still small voice will incline us to react in the above ways naturally so we don’t need to refer to the bullet points of psychology. In the meantime, realize that even the Lord’s servants get lost, 7 fail to plan,8 get discouraged,9 and yes, even have entire groups of people who are supposed to be their friends scorn and reject them.10 They get through it and remain happy. They think and act optimistically. Let’s learn to reflect and react a little more like them. As Howard W. Hunter reminds us:

I want you to know that there have always been some difficulties in mortal life and there always will be. But knowing what we know, and living as we are supposed to live, there really is no place, no excuse, for pessimism and despair. . . . I reassure you that things have been worse and they will always get better. They always do–especially when we live and love the gospel of Jesus Christ and give it a chance to flourish in our lives.11

After all, things will work out.12 They always do. How else have you made it this far?


**Kendel Christensen is a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania and in his second year of Teach for America. He enjoys collecting useful information which he posts on his website, www.Kendelc.com

  1. President Hinckley especially was known to say that he was an eternal optimist. See President GordonB. Hinckley “I Am an Optimist. I Think the Future Looks Good.” Find the talk here. Accessed Jan. 14, 2012; Also “Words of the Prophet: The Spirit of Optimism” July 2001 Ensign
  2. Ezra Taft Benson, “The Great Commandment—Love the Lord,” Ensign, May 1988, 6
  3. David D. Burns, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, preface by Aaron T. Beck (New York: Avon, 1999), 30
  4. See D&C 93:24, Jacob 4:13
  5. See Alma 62:41
  6. See Elder Bednar’s talk here
  7. “Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles,” By Don L. Searle, Associate Editor, Ensign, December, 1994
  8. See A Disciple’s Life: The Biography of Neal A. Maxwell
  9. See D&C 121
  10. See Luke 4:20-30
  11. Howard W. Hunter, “An Anchor to the Souls of Men,” 7 February 1993
  12. Jeffrey R. Holland, “President Gordon B. Hinckley: Stalwart and Brave He Stands,” Ensign June 1995


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